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Jobs in the Home, knitting,early-mid 20th Century


Before the 1950s only wool was generally used for knitting, but the inclusive word 'yarn' is mainly used here.

Usable knitting yarn from outgrown, worn knitwear and spare balls

In the 1940s and 50s when I was growing up, I did a lot of knitting which I remember well. Shortages and lack of money were so severe that people often resorted to knitting with yarn from scraps left-over from other knitting and yarn unravelled from knitwear that was worn or outgrown. This wasn't as easy as it may sound. Left-over scraps were of unmatching colours which required special patterns to stop the resulting knitting looking gaudy; unravelled yarn was not straight; and worn yarn needed the worn bits cut out. There were ways of treating all of these as described below.

How to get usable yarn from unravelled knitwear

Unravelling is straightforward because knitting is a form of chain stitch. All women - yes it was always women when I was a child - had to do was to snip an end and pull. If that doesn't work for you, just repeat starting at the other end. Pulling one end results in a knot; pulling the other end unravels easily.

Wool unravelled from old knitwear, kinked into the shapes of the original stitches.

Yarn unravelled from old knitwear, kinked into the shapes of the original stitches.

However, the resulting yarn wasn't smooth or straight because it had been 'set' into the shape of the stitches as shown in the first picture.

How to straighten unravelled yarn

To straighten the unravelled yarn, women first had to coil it into what were called skeins as shown in the second picture. Then they had to hand wash it gently and dry it, still in its skein shape. This process straightened the yarn completely.

Unravelled wool in a loose skein, ready for washing and drying to remove its kinks.

Unravelled yarn in a loose skein, ready for washing and drying to remove its kinks.

How to wind skeins into balls

The dry yarn could not be knitted directly from skeins as it would quickly get tangled. It had first to be wound into balls. This process required two people - although there were various gadgets that never worked properly which claimed to replace the second person.

One person had to hold out the skein as shown in the sketch while the other person would take one end, pull it off the skein and wind it into a ball. The person holding the skein had to watch which end the yarn would be wound from next and move that arm towards the other person, so that the yarn would slip easily off the hand. Then that arm had to be moved back and the other arm had to be moved forward, in time with the person winding.

Winding a skein of wool into a ball.

Winding a skein of yarn into a ball. Holding the skein was invariably a task for children, and was very tiring because arms had to be outstretched and swung in and out and to and fro to allow the yarn to come off the skein at constant tension.

It was very tiring to keep doing this with outstretched arms, and also extremely boring as so many skeins needed to be balled for a whole garment. Inevitably the task fell to children, and many a child had to sit in front of mother or grandmother, arms outstretched, swaying them forwards and backwards while mother or grandmother unwound from the skeins and wound the yarn into balls.

As the yarn in the balls often came from worn knitwear, it contained thin parts and broken ends. The procedure for joining sections of yarn is described at the end of the page.

Two interesting asides: Actors get it wrong!

In the 1910 version of TV's Upstairs Downstairs, there was a brief clip of Sir Hallam Holland holding a skein of wool for his wife who was winding it into a ball. The script had him saying that he often used to do this for someone else in his family. Yet he clearly never had in real life, and there was no-one old enough on the acting set to tell him that he was doing it wrong! He held the skein loosely so that it sagged, which would rapidly have come off his hands and tangled; and he did not move his arms forwards and backwards and to and fro with the flow of the wool, which would have resulted in the wool catching on his fingers.

Even new yarn had to be wound into balls

The task of winding skeins into balls also applied to new yarn from wool shops because it was often sold in what were called 'hanks'. A hank was a skein loosely coiled and twisted into a manageable lump.

Yarn from non-matching left-overs: Fair Isle knitting

To prevent knitting from coloured left-overs from looking garish, colours and patterns of colour had to be chosen carefully. These patterns reflected existing styles known as Fair Isle, or Fair Isle. Patterns could be bought from wool shops, but women often used their own creations for bands of colour.

Boy's Fair Isle jerse

Boy's Fair Isle jersey

Boys' hand-knitted pullovers and jerseys from the 1940s and 50s.

This detail from a photograph on a Silver Street School page shows how usual it was to wear hand-knitted garments and how intricate stitches and patterns were commonplace.

Swapping left-over yarn for greater variety

Guest contribution

My mother was about 18 when WW2 began, so her recollections were very clear. She told us quite a lot about making the best of things during the rationing and shortages. She talked about unravelling worn jumpers and washing and straightening the wool, and re-knitting it, often as Fair Isle with its intricate repetitive and multi-coloured designs. The different coloured wools are carried across the back of the knitting, which meant that thin wool could be used while still making a thicker warm garment.

My mother and her workmates used to swap tiny balls of different colours of left-over wool, so that they could make all sorts of attractive things. They made gloves, mittens, scarves and berets this way, using up tiny scraps of wool.

Sandra Hanson

How to join lengths of yarn together

Yarn that is reclaimed from worn out knitwear has to have the worn pieces cut out and the remaining pieces joined together. Similarly, oddments of left-over yarn have to be joined for the final knit. The pieces can be joined with a knot, either with the knot placed at the back of the knitting or - preferably - at the end of a row so that the loose ends can be sewn in vertically once the garment is complete. However there is an even neater way.

The photos show the sequence of actions. In making them I had to use thick yarn to make clearer photos, and all that was available to me was a man-made fibre of some sort, which I found rather fiddly because it so readily frayed. With actual wool which clings more readily to itself, the joining action is straightforward. I used to make these joins numerous times entirely successfully with wool.

The join is of course is weaker than the rest of the yarn but once there are rows of knitting above and below it, these hold it in place. While making a stitch at the actual join, it is best to hold the join together with the fingers of one hand. This is fiddly but by no means impossible.

length of yarn divided ready for joining

Take the end of one length of yarn and splay it into two.

One end of splayed yarn being cut off

Cut off one of the two splayed ends.

One end of splayed yarn cut off

The result should look like this.

Two ends of yarn ready for joining

Do the same to the end of the yarn that is to join, and fray out the ends of both lengths. The result should like this.

Yarn from two joined lengths

Twist the two frayed ends together with an overlap. A little water can provide a temporary adhesive. Then tie each end of the join in place with a bow of thin thread. Keep the bow in place for knitting. Once there are rows of knitting above the join, the bow can be gently pulled undone, the thread teased out and any fraying at the ends of the join cut off.

Yarn from two joined lengths

My experience of joining yarn was almost entirely with wool - and wool clings to itself. For a wool join, I needed no ties - only care when making the stitch at the join. An uneven twist didn't show in the final garment.

See also

Knitting efficiently versus knitting inefficiently

Knitting patterns and needles in the past

The old wool shop

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